Six Things to Know Before You Drive in Panama4th May 2015
Though the capital’s prodigious traffic can look daunting at first glance, there’s no need to be afraid to drive in Panama. Sure, while learning your way around, you may want to avoid driving at night or on particularly rainy days—that’s good advice in any country. And in Panama, it’s essential you always keep an eye out for potholes (and that’s good advice whether you’re driving or walking).
Fortunately, most drivers in Panama are wary and skilled in avoiding accidents. So just focus on the most important rules, keep a level head, and you’ll be fine.
In fact, if you’re from the U.S. or Canada, you’ll find many of the road rules are the same, and even traffic signs will look familiar.
- Keep right, using the left lane to pass slower cars (unless barred by a double yellow line).
- You can turn right on a red light, unless a sign specifically says it is prohibited.
- Don’t parallel park if the curb is painted yellow or if you see a no parking sign—that’s no estacione (or simply an “E” with a red line through it). Keep change handy in case you need to feed a meter.
- Yield to pedestrians at crosswalks and elsewhere—they always have the right of way.
1. Don’t expect to get away with speeding:
If you rent a car in Panama, you’ll note the speed is gauged in kilometers and not miles. If you’re in the capital city, you’ll find speed limits are not always posted, though maximums are typically around 50kph. A good rule of thumb: don’t try to drive at speeds greater than 60kph, no matter what everyone else is doing. It can be tempting to speed on arteries like Via España, La Transistmica, and the Cinta Costera at night, when they’re not as crowded. Don’t, as pedestrians often dash across the roads.
And if everyone is going 40kph, it’s not advisable to go 20kph and disrupt traffic flows. Plenty of accidents in Panama consist of unsuspecting drivers rear ending the vehicle in front of them because it suddenly hit the brakes. This happens most often with taxicabs, which will stop anywhere—even the middle of a busy road—to pick up a fare.
On the Pan-American Highway - Panama’s main thoroughfare-you will see speed limits posted. The highest speed is generally 100kph, and motorists are expected to slow immediately to between 40-60kph when passing through a populated area. If you don’t slow down quickly enough, expect to get ticketed. Signs marked reduzca la velocidad (“lower your speed”) warn you to prepare for a change in speed limit. Likewise, signs telling you to resume your former speed (reasuma la velocidad) let you know when it’s ok to speed back up.
2. No texting or talking on your cell, please:
In Panama, it’s illegal to drive while talking on your cell phone or texting…and this is a law that is enforced. Typically, transit police are stationed on busy city streets and will gesture for you to pull over if they see you brandishing a phone. They do have the authority to let you off with a warning if they see fit, so it never hurts to be humble and apologetic. Same goes for the seatbelt law, which requires that the driver and front seat passenger belt up. If you have a child under the age of five, make sure you have a carrier seat for them.
3. License and ID are a must:
Panama law requires that adults carry identification at all times. For foreigners this means a passport (plus license, if you’re driving). If you don’t feel comfortable carrying such an important document around with you, it’s considered ok to carry a photocopy. Just make sure you copy both the main photo page and the page showing your entry stamp. You can drive in Panama on a foreign license for up to 90 days. If you plan to be here longer, you will need to apply for a local permit from the transit authority.
4. Dealing with fender-benders:
In the event you’re pulled over or have a fender-bender, you must be prepared to show, in addition to the above:
- Vehicle registration
- Proof of insurance (third party liability at minimum)
- Blank accident report forms
- A copy of the official drivers’ manual
In rental cars these are typically in the glove compartment; an agent should show them to you before you leave the lot. It’s always a good idea to take all the insurances offered when you rent a car. And remember, if anything happens to the car, you must report the incident to the police and the rental company immediately.
5. Know when not to drive:
As in many countries, drinking and driving is not allowed in Panama. The legal blood alcohol level for drivers is 0.0% and there are serious penalties for failing a breathalyzer test. You could end up having your car impounded…or even face jail time. Thankfully, taxis are easy to use (as are services like Uber and the metro line), and a great way to get around during a night on the town.
6. Expect some cultural differences:
In Panama, drivers can be much more permissive about following traffic rules than in North America. You’ll want to be aware of and patient with cultural differences in order to drive safely here. For example, always keep a few car lengths between you and the car in front of you. The reality in Panama is that drivers often fail to signal when stopping or turning. A healthy distance and a watchful eye is all you need to deal with that particular issue. And don’t be alarmed by the many drivers who pull close to you in heavy traffic. They do this to discourage drivers in the next lane from cutting in, not to intimidate or annoy you.
Also, drivers toot their horns freely in Panama. In general a short beep or two indicates a friendly gesture...“go ahead” or “thanks” or “please move, the light is green.” Drivers will also honk to let you know they’re next to you, passing you, or peeved at something. The best thing you can do is keep a steady pace and let the other cars weave in and out of traffic at will. Stay calm and you’ll be a pro at driving in Panama in no time!
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